Friedreich ataxia (FRDA) is the most common genetic cause of ataxia with a prevalence of approximately 1 in 29,000. Ocular motor abnormalities are common in FRDA and include fixation instability, saccadic dysmetria, and vestibular dysfunction. It has not yet been determined whether aspects of spatial attention, which are closely coupled to eye movements, are similarly compromised in FRDA. This study examined attentional engagement and disengagement of eye movements in FRDA using a gap overlap task. Thirteen individuals with genetically confirmed FRDA and 12 age-matched unaffected controls participated in the experiment. The gap overlap paradigm was used to examine the effect of early (gap condition), simultaneous (null condition), or late (overlap condition) removal of a central fixation on saccadic latency to a peripheral target stimulus. Although the FRDA group showed a larger gap effect (i.e., difference in saccadic latencies between the overlap and gap condition), these participants demonstrated a greater difference in latencies in the overlap relative to the null condition, suggestive of deficits within the disengagement process of attentional orienting. We propose a role for the cerebellum in these deficits in the disengagement of spatial attention based on evidence of cerebellar connectivity with regions involved in exogenous shifts of attention. The significant correlations between saccadic latency and disease severity as measured by the Friedreich Ataxia Rating Scale further support the proposal that saccadic latency might be useful as a surrogate marker of disease severity and progression in future clinical trials in FRDA.
- Inherited ataxias